I’ve always doubted the claim that online ‘citizen journalism’ is a better source of information than the professional mainstream press. But over the last week in Tokyo we’ve had more reason than usual to pay attention to the news, as we’ve faced the decision whether to flee Tokyo (and what many have reported to be the risk of nuclear fallout) or stay and get our lives back to normal as soon as possible?

The experience has left me with a new take on things. Over the course of the last ten days in Tokyo at least, give me Twitter over the press any day of the week.

On the face of it, the role of the media is to provide people with ‘news’. They employ ‘professionals’ to filter through the ‘facts’ and produce stories for their readers. But of course they also have commercial concerns and attention-grabbing headlines help sell papers. In a market where everybody’s at it, it must be difficult not to join in with the shock tactics.

Thus the sensational headers from all corners of the British press this week. As they both reflected and stoked the deep-seated public fear of ‘radioactivity’, they helped create the very panic that they were reporting on – another case of the press as a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Twitter on the other hand is largely a network of individuals. And whatever agendas these people may have in their daily lives, during the course of this crisis those in Tokyo have been united by one thing – getting as accurate a picture as possible of the situation in order to make an informed decision about what to do next.

Through Twitter I’ve been able to connect directly or indirectly to medical experts, nuclear scientists and yes… Tokyo-based journalists free from their editors. A huge network has been collecting and sharing information and a few more active bloggers have been collating it to their sites (herehere and here for instance). A community spontaneously sprung up which anybody could tap into. Thanks to the hard work of a few dedicated bloggers at the centre of it, we’ve all been able to benefit.

Press conferences have been tweeted in English as they’ve happened. Links to Geiger counters around Tokyo and at the nuclear plant itself have been posted. Academic and specialist press documents have been passed around. Those with the expertise to do so have analysed and clarified articles appearing in the press.

Even with all this information, plus advice from real-life friends who work in the nuclear industry, it was not an easy decision to stay. However, thanks to Twitter we’ve been able to bypass the sensationalism of the mainstream press and get a more informed view based on direct sources. We’ve been able to avoid panic and the fate of this gormless (and most probably invented) soul whose story was told in the Sun (in an article so misrepresentative of the truth it leaves me seriously questioning the value of a free press).

In the end we’re glad to have made the decision to stick around and play our tiny bit part in helping get the country back on its feet. We remain tuned in for future developments at Fukushima but at the moment we feel safe and confident that we will be able to avoid serious effects in the extremely unlikely event that things do take a turn for the worse.

So does this mean that I’ll be using Twitter for my news from now on?

Well probably not. For Twitter to be effective you need to be tuned-in to the right people and you need to keep up with the information being shared. You need to piece together a story from fragments of information. This all takes effort and time; resources that feel in increasingly short supply. So most of the time, I suspect I’ll continue to rely on the mainstream press to do the filtering for me.

From now on though, I’ll be treating anything I read in the ‘professional’ press with a little more skepticism and ignoring the headlines altogether. And if I really want to get insight into a situation, then I’ll try bypassing the press completely to tune in to the ‘citizens’ involved on the ground – and hear the story from those who care the most about it.